“We Thrive in Chaotic Good”: New York Comic Con Could Be the Antithesis of SDCC’s Strike-Affected Year

On July 14, only one week ahead of San Diego Comic-Con, SAG-AFTRA called its first strike since the 1980s. 

The West Coast convention had braced for a limited writers’ presence after the Writers Guild began their own work stoppage two months earlier, but the event was still tentatively on track for A-list appearances from Hollywood’s performers union, including the cast of Dune: Part 2. The SAG strike, however, then shuttered those plans almost completely, returning the world’s most high-profile entertainment and pop culture convention to its comics programming roots. 

Animation, screenings, activations, TV and film crafts teams, and a smattering of directors’ appearances, became the central focus alongside two strike-related panels, one consisting of WGA showrunners and writers, and another tied to voice acting and AI featuring SAG-AFTRA leaders.

At the time, it wasn’t clear how long the double strike would last, and some wondered if New York Comic Con, which was then six months away, would face a similar fate as SDCC. 

Earlier this week, however, the WGA announced it had come to a deal with the AMPTP’s more than 300 studios, and on Sept. 27 at 12:01 a.m. PT, the guild called an end to one of the longest work stoppages in its history. Where SDCC faced a vacuum of talent, NYCC could see an influx for its Oct. 12-15 event, with writers now available to discuss film and TV projects. The con is currently in talks to book writers, with names set to be announced.

SAG-AFTRA is also set to resume negotiations on Oct. 2, raising questions about whether the performer’s union, which is notably larger than the WGA and represents a wider gamut of talent, could pull off a deal in similarly fashion to their formerly striking counterparts.

While the end of the writers strike might not mean a massive overhaul of NYCC’s schedule, studios are still confirming new panels for titles that may have otherwise only had screenings. And the mere presence of writers on panels alongside a last-minute deal could open the doors to a surprise performer or two. 

SAG-AFTRA has also put its stamp on this year’s convention, announcing Wednesday a second panel tied to AI with the National Association of Voice Actors. That came less than a week after New York Comic organizer ReedPop confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter neither union had yet to approach the con about paneling.

It’s a return that could either expand SAG-AFTRA’s SDCC conversation into gaming following its strike authorization vote, or see one of the first major appearances by chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland following a deal.

In a conversation first conducted ahead of the WGA deal and revisited after the strike concluded, VP of ReedPop’s global comics portfolio Kristina Rogers unpacks below how the convention team will handle a potential influx of talent; how the con thought about programming for its two biggest stages in the absence of major properties; and why fans shouldn’t expect to see a lean into activations, but will see a lot of horror.

You have a good amount of horror programming on the schedule for this year. What inspired that?

We have a horror fan in the team, and once they realized the show’s going to be on Friday the 13th, they were like, “Oh hey, this can be fun.” We have panels for Paramount+’s Evil and Starz’s Shining Vale. We have this really great literary horror panel happening. We have John Carpenter signing and doing photos, so he has a spotlight on Friday. He’s a really cool, interesting guest and a new approach for us, but we’re wanting to lean into horror. It’s become more mainstream and thus more highly requested. Horror is in the middle range of what people are requesting more of, and it’s netted out way better than we thought.

NYCC programs for a wide age demographic, including Sunday which has historically been more open to kids and families. How did you approach programming for the genre with all the industries you feature, keeping the range of ages in mind?

We approach it the same for horror as we do for any specific genre, which is: If I am a fan of fantasy, how can this show be devoted just to it? The answer is that on Thursday through Sunday, there’s something fantasy related that I can do every day; exhibitors that speak to it; panels that speak to it. For literary, it was: Who can we go after? For comics, who can we make sure is coming and what guests can we make sure are going to be present in Artist’s Alley? For our studio partners, it’s talking with them and saying, “Hey, it’s Friday the 13th. Let’s make sure we’re bringing something for everybody.” Whether it’s Goosebumps or Eli Roth, I think we’re running a really nice gamut.

You also have more Broadway content this year, which makes a lot of sense considering New York’s theater district is right next door. But did the strike increase your interest in it for 2023?

We’ve been growing it over the last couple of years, so this year, even before the strike started, we said: Let’s go all in. Our fans are really loving it. Playbill is amazing to work with. I love the theater space. We’ve done a pretty significant expansion to the programming that is just going to continue over the years. One day we’re going to have a Comic Con musical. That’s my goal.

San Diego had the unfortunate fate of being scheduled a week after SAG-AFTRA went on strike, which really upended their plans. It felt similar to the pandemic, where everything suddenly shut down. How much did your experience during those years prepare you for this?

Our pandemic experience really helped inform us. This summer, one of the things that benefited us the most was the work that SAG had done to make sure that talent could still attend the events, so long as they’re not promoting their struck work. I really do appreciate that they went out of their way to include a whole section about conventions, so that we can still bring these communities together and still support them and the work that they’re doing.

In terms of the content overall, we haven’t seen fan demand diminish. We just got done with our reservations — we give away all of our seating prior to the show for the Empire and Main stages in order to avoid onsite line issues. We have about a dozen remaining, which is pretty standard year-over-year. The other one is just making sure that, in this balance of supporting the writers and supporting the actors in a really important ongoing conversation, we’re able to focus on what fan conventions are really about, which is celebrating this creative work and celebrating each other and the community. That’s the shift we’ve taken this year to work with the conditions that are removing actors from being on panels.

SDCC ended up having to lean into comics and animation programming. Did ReedPop shift towards things like publishing or anime more in planning for this year?

We don’t have more of it because we always have a ton of anime and animation; a ton of comics publishers. I think the removal of some of these studio offerings allows for more bandwidth and more of that message to come through — all of this content is still happening. The content from our comic companies is really cool and interesting, and now that we don’t have the Main Stage pretty crammed full, fans are paying a little bit more attention, which I love to see.

I think our big challenge as a team is: How can we continue to make sure that happens, even next year when everything’s back to normal? I think we’ve said that every year, and now every year there’s been something odd. But that attention to it from fans, marketers, press even of covering this event… I compared 2019 to this year for comic publishers — literary, anime and animation — and it’s largely the same. We don’t have a significant amount more, but we do have a significant amount. We’re running programming from 11 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m.

Has focusing more on that shifted what programming you’re featuring on your bigger stages this year?

Honestly, not much. We have some pretty high capacity rooms, and so when shifting a panel into a really high capacity room, one of the things we don’t ever want is a panel that looks half empty. Half empty at the Empire Stage is kind of laughable, because it’s still a lot of people. But if you’re coming to bring your content, and you don’t see most of the seats filled, it’s a little like “Oh, what the heck?” But it’s like, don’t feel bad. Those rooms are huge. I know that there are some panels that definitely got into Empire and Main that might not have normally, and I’m really excited about it. But I don’t think it’s a significant portion. I don’t think it’s more than 10 or 15 percent.

SAG-AFTRA and the WGA both had presences at SDCC, and SAG — which is still striking — and NAVA both recently announced a panel on AI and performers. How does having them at this year’s convention add to existing programming for you?

As the SAG-AFTRA strike continues, we know that AI is a critical discussion point in the ongoing negotiations. When the National Association of Voice Actors submitted a panel on AI in entertainment from the performer’s perspective with the National Executive Editor of SAG-AFTRA as part of the discussion, we welcomed the opportunity to have their voices heard at NYCC and think this will be an impactful and timely discussion for NYCC attendees.  

Since the pandemic, the show floor has been a place of rebuilding for comic conventions. How is this year shaping up in terms of strike impacts?

I love our show floor every year. There are spaces that I love a little bit more than others, but this year the show floor will really show the breadth of pop culture. Everything from trading cards, which is a definitely strong niche in pop culture right now, to collectibles, which are really hot. We have some great companies coming in there all the way to anime. It’s interesting to see the flux year-over-year. I think the significant thing is our traditional publishers have returned. Simon & Schuster, all of those groups, are back on the show floor, whereas the comic publishers haven’t been as much.

We have Dark Horse sponsoring our Artists Alley this year. I think it is a really good solution to a company not having bandwidth. These shows are very expensive to do, especially in New York. A New York hotel room is expensive; the food is expensive, the labor is expensive to build your booth. So if you’re a smaller company looking to make a real impact, I think the team’s gotten really creative and helpful with ways we can do that. But the show floor, you can live in there all four days and still not see everything.

The WGA has now ended their strike and SAG-AFTRA is back at the table. Has the team game planned for the inverse of SDCC to happen — for a reality where you might see a last-minute, chaotic influx of interest?

Now that the WGA strike has concluded, we welcome the writers to NYCC. We are already in touch with several studios about getting their writers credentialed so they can join existing programming. We haven’t been approached yet about new programming, and it would be challenging to make it work this close to the event. But we’re open to having those conversations and seeing what we can do if we feel like the fans would really, really appreciate it being added. We could get a call the week before to add these people and we need all these credentials, so it’ll be interesting. But all our events are chaotic. We thrive in chaotic good.

During the double strike, people who normally don’t get as much attention — crafts people, below the line crew and, to a lesser extent, directors — became center stage. How has that available talent pool affected what you’re able to do programming-wise?

I think it’s actually brought up a really fascinating opportunity. Jason Blum is coming and talking about Blumhouse and its plans, the movies that are going to be happening and the way that he and his team approaches the craft. We have Eli Ross coming in to present Thanksgiving. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look from a completely different angle. I think that adds an interesting conversation. And it would be really great next year, if we can combo that even more — assuming there’s been a really nice deal struck and everybody’s happy — and to have those same conversations happen with actors. Because it’s all craft, it’s all art — no matter which side of it you’re on.

NYCC hasn’t always been huge on activations due to location and space restraints, but this year, SDCC leaned hard into that. Can fans expect an expanded offering as a result of the strikes?

One of the things I truly love about San Diego Comic-Con is the way the city reacts to it in general. That whole area shuts down and it’s such a fun fan experience that I’ve longed for many years to replicate in New York. I think the work that has been done in Hudson Yards has been phenomenal over the last couple of years. We used to be in the middle of nowhere. (Laughs.) You would have to walk for 20 minutes to find a great dinner after the show. Now that’s starting to come closer and closer to the venue.

This year, the activation spaces outside, we don’t have a ton that is going on. There are a couple of things from studios that they’re doing, but nothing of significant size. I believe that it’s largely due to a leftover reduction of budgets from the pandemic, the strike happening and things like that. We’re hoping next year and the year after to start really expanding outside. It’s also gaining a bit of confidence that it’s not going to rain on people because it is October. The outdoor expansion and the extension of New York in general past the Javits is definitely front of mind for us. We just have to have the right content to support it, and then we have to have enough team to be able to execute it.

The spotlight panels at conventions I think have raised the most eyebrows in terms of how talent navigates the convention during the strike. How did the strikes shape your choices?

We’ve always called it a “spotlight on” when we bring in our autographing and photo op guests, and they also do panels. This year during most of our negotiations, the strike was well known. So approaching it, it was, “Are you comfortable talking about your life and your humaneness for 45 minutes?” Most of them are. I’m a big Our Flag Means Death fan. We have all of them and we’ve had most of those actors at all of our events across the last year and a half because it’s such a connecting show. So were talking with Rhys (Darby), Con (O’Neill), Vigo (Ortiz), Nathan (Foad) and Kristian (Nairn)’s teams to make sure. Like, “Hey, this is a really large panel that is now no longer about this property.” All of them said: We have careers, we have passions. We just want to have a conversation with each other in front of all of our fans and we think it’ll be really wonderful 45 minutes. I’ve watched some panels and content happening at other shows with some actors. I think they’re really fun. I think it’s exciting to be able to talk a little bit more about the humaneness behind why they chose the path they chose.

Cosplay — and what someone could or should do in light of the performers’ strike — became a notable issue at SDCC. How did you think about it for your convention?

SAG also went through and addressed this. I’m really grateful for the work they did because not a lot of people think about fan conventions, and they went out of their way to be specific about cosplayers. If you’re attending an event, as a fan, dress however you want. Dress in this IP that we all love, go for it. The line they’re drawing, which is very fair, is: Don’t dress for it and get paid. If you’re doing promotion for a company dressed as a character that is currently struck, that’s scabbing. But attending a show as a fan and coming to our cosplay competition — you should 100 percent continue pursuing your passion. We’ve had some of our usual suspect cosplayers reach out to confirm with us, asking, “Hey, have you heard from SAG?” and so we’ve done a little bit of communication back and forth. We decided not to release a general statement as the confusion died down. But, our cosplay gets to proceed as normal.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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